A Lesson From Julian Assange
These days, it's hard to fake it if you really can't make it.
Perhaps the latest example of a growing distaste for fake motives is Julian Assange. The founder of WikiLeaks has presented himself as a truth-seeking crusader, exposing the wrongs of the world's governments. It's true he has a cult-like following of supporters, but a lot of people are not buying into the white knight shtick anymore -- an encouraging sign that truth, honesty and ethics in media are still very much an expected standard.
Assange didn't publish those thousands of pages of classified diplomatic briefs to illuminate dark secrets and to make the world a better place. He did it to make a pile of money and glorify himself as a "liberator of information." But he's not. He is a thief who has obtained information illegally, jeopardizing global diplomatic relations to grow his business and earn a princely sum for a book about his ho-hum life. There are millions of unrecognized citizens who have done more to help their fellow global citizens than Assange has ever done, and no matter how tightly he wears the coat of righteousness, no matter how much the words "transparency" and "responsibility" are spouted in proximity of his name, the only person that Assange is benefitting is himself.
Think about it.
The flood of secret material released by his organization does nothing to make the world a better place. It does the opposite, risking months -- no, years -- of painstaking diplomatic work and at worst, putting lives in danger. Few cables in the WikiLeaks pile illuminate a shocking, grievous wrong; instead, they are generally thoughtful and considered situational analyses. For the most part, they weren't even particularly revelatory. U.S. diplomats think Russia is essentially a mafia state? Shock, horror. Arab leaders consider the Iranian president a dangerous fool and want him eliminated? Gosh, no one saw that coming either.
And the tiresome claims of righteousness in releasing the cables really start to fall apart in light of Assange's later moves. Soon after his actions made international headlines, the WikiLeaks founder inked a book deal in excess of a$1.3 million to write his autobiography. But this was no sellout: according to Assange, $1 million plus is required because of the "need to defend myself and to keep WikiLeaks afloat."
What for, I ask?
Transparency in Communication
Nobody argues that more transparency, honesty and openness are needed to make the world a better place. That's the noble goal of journalism and, in fact, any type of public communication. The difference, however, between most fair-minded communication efforts and bottom-scrapers like WikiLeaks is authenticity. And while we're at it, we could include BP as part of the latter description.
People have gotten wise to all of this and to the authenticity of WlkiLeaks and Assange's motivations. In a recent BBC World News America/Harris poll, 39% to 47% of respondents disagreed with the statement that "Wikileaks is helping to provide transparency in government." A similar number disagreed with the assertion that "publishing these documents could be embarrassing or hurtful to any given administration, but it's not dangerous."
This runs counter to the initial reaction to Assange and his organization as being good-hearted whistleblowers. But the world, it seems, is coming around to realize what WikiLeaks and its founder really are -- self-serving and destructive entities, not at all the crusaders for truth and transparency they claimed to be.
So what has any of this got to do with PR?
It's very simple. People have no more time for truth-fudging and ulterior motives. We have been done over too many times. Our new decade will demand truth and transparency -- when it's authentic. The same applies for corporate communications and messaging. Global PR machines will become even more despised and mistrusted, and the PR cover-ups will come back to hurt brands a hundred times over. Personal agendas and egos be damned -- there will be revolts and backlashes on scales we've never seen before when people discover the (dishonest) truth and motivations behind certain actions that enter theirs and the media's domain.
We used to joke about truth in advertising. Now the joke, as Julian Assange has taught us, is on transparency.